The Coming of the King’s Frigate

Now Doctor Syn was very fond of the sea, and he was never far away from it. Even in winter time he would walk upon the seawall with a formidable telescope under his arm, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of a long sea-coat, and his old black three-cornered parson’s hat cocked well forward and pulled down over his eyes. And although the simple old fellow would be mentally working out his dry-as-dust sermons, he would be striding along at a most furious speed, presenting to those who did not know him an altogether alarming appearance, for in tune to his brisk step he would be humming the first verse of an old-time sea chanty that he had picked up from some ruffianly seadog of a parishioner; and as he strode along, with his weather eye ever on the lookout for big ships coming up the Channel, the rough words would roll from his gentle lips with the most perfect incongruity:

“Oh, here’s to the feet that have walked the plank,
Yo ho! for the dead man’s throttle,
And here’s to the corpses floating round in the tank,
And the dead man’s teeth in the bottle.”

He was as proud of this song as if he had written it himself, and it was a continual source of amusement to the fishermen to hear him sing it, which he frequently did of an evening in the parlour of the old Ship Inn when he went there for a chat and a friendly pipe; for Doctor Syn was, as I have said, broad-minded, and held views that would certainly have been beyond those of the diocesan dignitaries. The very daring of a parson drinking with the men in a public inn had a good effect, he declared, upon the parish, for a good parson, as a good sailor, should know when he has had enough. The squire would back him up in this, and there they would both sit every evening laughing and talking with the fishermen, very often accompanying some crew down to the beach to help them launch their boat⁠—and of course all this added to their popularity. But on Sunday nights they dined at the courthouse, leaving the field open for the redoubtable Mipps, who, as has been said, took full advantage of it.

Now the ungainly little sexton had a great admirer in the person of Mrs. Waggetts, the landlady of the Ship. Her husband had been dead for a number of years, and she was ever on the lookout for another. She perceived in the person of Mipps her true lord and master. He was enterprising, he had also money of his own, for he was parish undertaker as well as sexton, and ran from his small shop in the village every trade imaginable. You could buy anything, from a bottle of pickles to a marlinspike in that dirty little store, and get a horrible anecdote thrown in with your bargain from the ready lips of the old fellow, who would continue to hammer away at an unfinished coffin as he talked to you.

But the burning passion that smouldered in the breast of the Ship landlady was in no way shared by the little sexton.

“Missus Waggetts,” he would say, “folk in the death trade should keep single; they gets their fair share of misery, Lord above knows, in these parts with the deaths so uncommon few.”

“Well,” Mrs. Waggetts would sigh, “I often wish as how it had been me that had been took instead of Waggetts. I fair envy him lying up there all so peaceful like, just a-rottin’ slowly along in his coffin.”

But the sexton would immediately fly into a rage with: “Waggetts’ coffin rottin’, did you say, Missus Waggetts? Not mine. I undertook Waggetts, I’d have you remember, and I don’t undertake to rot. I loses money on my coffins, Missus Waggetts. I undertakes, ma’am, undertakes to provide a suitable affair wot’ll keep out damp and water, and cheat worm, grub, slug, and slush.”

“Nobody would deny, Mister Mipps,” the landlady would answer in a conciliatory tone, “as to how you’re a good undertaker. Anyone with half an eye could see as how you knocks ’em up solid.”

But Mipps didn’t encourage Mrs. Waggetts when she was pleased to flatter, so he would take himself off in high dudgeon to avoid her further attentions.

This actual conversation took place one November afternoon, and the sexton, after slamming the inn door to give vent to his irritation, hurried along the seawall toward his shop, comforting himself that he could sit snug inside a coffin and cheer himself up with hammering it.

On the way he met Doctor Syn, who was standing silhouetted against the skyline with his telescope focused upon some large vessel that was standing in off Dungeness.

“Ah, Mr. Mipps,” said the cleric, handing his telescope to the sexton, “tell me what you make of that?”

Mipps adjusted the lens and looked. “The Devil!” he ejaculated.

“I beg your pardon?” said the Doctor. “What did you say?” One of the King’s preventer men had come out of his cottage and was approaching them.

“I don’t make no head nor tale of it,” replied the sexton. “Perhaps you do, sir?”

“Well, it looks to me,” continued the parson, “it⁠—looks⁠—to⁠—me⁠—uncommonly like a King’s frigate. Can’t you make out her guns on the port side?”

“Yes!” cried the sexton; “I’ll be hanged if you’re not right, sir; it’s a damned King’s ship as ever was.”

Mr. Mipps,” corrected the parson, “again I must ask you to repeat your remark.”

“I said, sir,” replied the sexton, meekly handing back the glass, “that you’re quite right: it’s a King’s ship, a nice King’s ship!”

“And she’s standing in, too,” went on the parson. “I can make her out plainly now, and, good gracious! she’s lowering a longboat!”

“Oh!” said Mr. Mipps, “I wonder wot that’s for?”

“A revenue search,” volunteered the preventer.

Mipps started. He hadn’t seen the preventer.

“Hello!” he said, turning round; “didn’t know you was there, Sir Francis Drake. What do you make of that there ship?”

“A King’s frigate,” replied the preventer man. “She’s sending a boat’s crew ashore.”

“What for?” asked the sexton.

“I told you: a revenue search; to look for smugglers.”

“Smugglers,” laughed the parson, “here in Dymchurch?”

“Aye, sir, so they say. Smugglers here in Dymchurch.”

“God bless my soul!” exclaimed the parson incredulously.

“How silly!” said the sexton.

“That remains to be seen, Mister,” retorted the preventer.

“What do you say?” said the sexton.

“I say, Mister, it remains to be seen.”

“ ’Course it does!” went on the sexton. “Let’s have another blink at her. Well,” he said at length, closing the telescope with a snap, and returning it, “King’s ship or no, they looks to me more like a set of mahogany pirates, and I’m a-goin’ to lock up the church. King’s men’s one thing, but havin’ the plate took’s another, and one that I don’t fancy, being held responsible; so good afternoon, sir”⁠—touching his hat to the vicar⁠—“and good afternoon to you, Christopher Columbus.” And with this little pleasantry, which struck him as being the height of humour, the grotesque little man hopped off at high speed in the direction of the inn.

“Odd little man that, sir,” said the preventer.

“Very odd little man,” said the vicar.